RIP Mark Gil, 1961 - 2014
Call it his fascist masterpiece. Mike de Leon's Batch '81 is an allegorical treatise on the nature of fascism, specifically that of the Marcos Administration, in a film that makes its argument (I submit) largely through fascist means.
De Leon's reputation as a control freak is legendary and, to be honest, not entirely unfounded. Here he tells the story of one Sid Lucero, aspiring to enter the frat Alpha Kappa Omega: through Sid's eyes we see the initiation process, through his ears we hear the rules and philosophy of the fraternity, through his thoughts (done in voiceover) we learn of his reaction to the frat's unfolding nature. Oh, Sid spends onscreen time with his fellow pledges, who function as distinct supporting players (strangely the frat masters remain mostly undifferentiated walking ciphers), but it's only Sid's thoughts we hear, only Sid's consciousness that absorbs the film's narrative, even the corollary narratives of his brothers.
De Leon has rarely been shy about his admiration for legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick; if anything you can see Kubrick's influence on De Leon's geometrically meticulous visual style, his distant emotional tone, his tendency to subject characters to forces beyond their control. If Kisapmata is De Leon's tribute to Kubrick's The Shining (the former in my opinion being the superior film), Batch '81 would arguably be De Leon's Clockwork Orange, and not merely because of an overt Clockwork-style rock-music number, where a mannequin is eviscerated onscreen: specific events are mirrored (a head dunked in a tank of filthy water; a man strapped to a chair; one film beginning with a gang rumble, the other ending with same), crucial themes echoed ("Anong desisyon mo?" (What's your decision?) recalling Clockwork's onscreen query: "What's it going to be then, eh?"--both films focusing on the primacy and degradation of free will).
If there's a difference between the two I'd say it's one borne of circumstance: Kubrick was a well-funded filmmaker, with a healthy commercial relationship tangential if not completely dependent on mainstream Hollywood. De Leon is not without resources (he is the grandson of film matriarch Narcisa De Leon, of LVN Pictures) but his budgets, if not starvation poor, are modest, and he scales his ambitions accordingly. Where Kubrick's films are elaborately constructed and obsessively detailed mindscapes, the extravagant sets used eccentrically (the vast hotel in The Shining, the unending ship in 2001, the decadent mansions in Paths of Glory, Lolita, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut) De Leon goes the other direction, employing naturalistic environments (a family home, a frat house basement) expressionistically, transforming them into psychic traps where his characters gnaw desperately at each other and at themselves, seeking escape.
Hence the frat house in Batch '81, where much of the action takes place. As designed by longtime De Leon collaborator Cesar Hernando the rooms are claustrophobic spaces where people can scream freely unheard, too small for those confined (seven freshly hatched pledges) to avoid notice, too narrow for them to do anything other than ask "more please!" The rooms eliminate any notion of freedom, any possible lifestyle alternative (a frat-free college career, for one), any thoughts outside of the moment: you are in a world of pain, and endurance of that pain is the sum total meaning of your life (past and future--other than your pending membership--having been beaten out of your skull).
De Leon's cinematography has always been functional almost to the point of unimpressive at least on first viewing, though they do have a crispness of image and precision of effect few other filmmakers, Filipino or otherwise, can touch. For this production De Leon (with cinematographer Rody Lacap) lights the sets with brutal frankness, the sole source of light often apparently being an incandescent bulb or two. Kubrick employs similar lighting in several of his films (the prison stage show in Clockwork; the lunar excavation in 2001), but where Kubrick uses the harsh glare to herald a spectacular revelation--the results of a mind experiment, the climax of an alien civilization's patient manipulations--De Leon employs them for a more quotidian reason: to illuminate the truth without flinching, without evasion. To show physical and psychological violence unadorned.
Need to mention one of De Leon's most important collaborators--don't usually like to discuss acting as I subscribe to Robert Bresson's theory on the subject (no actors, no parts, no staging; being as opposed to seeming) but even I have to admit much of the force of the film is due to the performance of the late great Mark Gil as Sid. If Al Pacino does volatile like no other actor, and Robert De Niro intense interiority, Gil seems to do both well, flipping effortlessly from one (yelling as his friend is being killed before him) to the other (meditating on his batchmates' faithlessness). And where De Niro practiced Method to the point of eating his way to obesity for Raging Bull, I doubt if even he is capable of enduring what Gil endures in one particularly harrowing scene, involving surgical clamps. No CGI, no apparent prosthetics--prosthetics do not gradually turn red onscreen.
Finally the script, by industry veterans Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr., Raquel Villavicencio, and De Leon himself: a clean, linear storyline that traces Sid's transformation from trembling neophyte to full frat brother. Aphorisms (presumably recorded by the writers from actual frat language) are constantly flung about during the rituals: "Ang simula at wakas ay kapatiran" (Brotherhood is the beginning and the end)--a statement that sounds profound but is essentially meaningless, the kind of exciting, easy-to-remember slogan extolling unity and obedience the Soviet Union used to crank out by the thousands. Sid repeats many of these himself, with less and less conviction as adversity raises doubt in the pledges' minds--a condition that the frat eventually addresses, in the film's key scene.
An elaborately designed electric chair straps and all with a remote button is introduced, and the pledges are literally pushed to their physical and mental limits. A frat master (actor Chito Ponce Enrile, brother of Marcos' Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile) explains: "Trust your frat. Hindi naman hinihingi ng frat ang hindi n'yo kaya (The frat doesn't ask for more than you can give)...ang importante ay makapagdesisyon kayo. Kailangan makipagdesisyon ang bawat isa sa inyo...(...what's important is that you decide. Each of you need to decide for yourself...)." The frat makes its case to the pledges in a reasonable, measured (but nevertheless authoritative) voice, not demanding but asking them to willingly put their faith in the group, put their faith in something bigger than themselves. As Anthony Burgess in his novel repeatedly asks to the reader (the repetitiveness--and urgency, in my view--markedly reduced in Kubrick's film): "What's it going to be then, eh?" It's I submit the hook with which a fascist organization or government wins undying loyalty from its followers: the carefully presented moment when a man is asked, pen poised in hand, to sign away above the dotted line.
But that's the plea; what seals the deal is sacrifice, preferably involving blood. We see hints of that in the contusions covering one pledge's chest, as he reveals he was coerced into participating in the electric-chair stunt; we see it more prominently later on when another pledge is killed by a rival gang and a full-fledged rumble takes place, literally an orgy of gore. Any breath or whisper of skepticism, of protest, of defiance is silenced--now and forever--once blood has been spilled; there's nothing like the (as Burgess put it) "red red krovvy on tap" to validate an idea beyond any possible doubt.
De Leon ends the film the way Kubrick ended his 2001, with the Star Child gazing straight through the screen at us, only where the Star Child radiates an air of serene transcendence, Sid Lucero's face--head slightly lowered, eyes level and direct--seems utterly drained of emotion, his lips mouthing the frat's principles with mechanized fluency ("Ang simula at wakas ay kapatiran!"). He is cured all right--of all reason, all intelligent thought, all sign or taint of humanity. He has evolved in opposite direction from the Star Child, towards total obedience, and has done so of his own free will.
Kubrick ends Clockwork on a joyous note, but it's a cynical joy, a passive despairing acceptance of the way things are--in effect, terrible. I much prefer Burgess' original novel, where an additional unfilmed chapter whispered the hint of a bizarre and bitter redemption, of the possibility of change. De Leon despite being (I suspect) every bit as misanthropic as Kubrick doesn't end his film the same way; that final shot of soulless Sid is his way of asking us to contemplate the entire trajectory of the man's character, from God-made fruit capable of sweetness to clockwork automaton, giving us a moment--on confronting this monstrous thing with the swinging paddle and mechanical moving lips--to mourn the irreplaceable, irrevocable loss.
First published in Businessworld, 9.4.14